Atheism+ is Humanism Rebranded – And That’s OK!

Jen McCreight has proposed a “new wave” of atheism, “Atheism+”. Here’s her description of what this new wave would look like:

We are…
Atheists plus we care about social justice,
Atheists plus we support women’s rights,
Atheists plus we protest racism,
Atheists plus we fight homophobia and transphobia,
Atheists plus we use critical thinking and skepticism.

It has already been noted by many that this description bears an uncanny resemblance to Humanism – the positive, progressive lifestance promoted on this blog and by numerous existing organizations in the freethought movement. Humanists are also atheists (and agnostics and skeptics etc.) who believe in social justice, women’s rights, anti racism, queer equality and critical thinking and skepticism. And we’ve been around, trying to promote these values in the freethought movement, for a long time.

So, is Atheism+ a rebranded Humanism?

Yes. And that’s perfectly OK!

I’m going to be honest here: when I first read about “Atheism+” I was both excited and annoyed. Excited because the issues I’ve been talking about for the past two years at atheist, skeptic and freethought conferences around the country were finally getting traction in the community at freethought blogs. And annoyed because I – and lots of my colleagues – have been talking about precisely these issues for years without them getting traction!

But on further consideration I feel that my annoyance is kind of a selfish response to the positive reaction Jen’s idea has garnered, and that there is much more to celebrate here than to criticize. So here I’d like to lay out my thoughts on Atheism+ in as full and clear way as possible.

Is Atheism+ just Humanism with a different name?

As far as I can tell, from the description provided, the answer is yes in terms of the values, no in terms of the emphasis. The values listed by Jen in her post are classic Humanist values – values which Humanist organizations work on already, and have been working on for a long time. The American Humanist Association has a Feminist Caucus and an LGBT Council, both of which address these issues from an atheistic perspective. African Americans for Humanism is an existing organization addressing issues of race and diversity relating specifically to African Americans. Social Justice and critical thinking are traditional Humanist values too.

So far, so similar. But it seems clear that Atheism+ has a different emphasis to Humanism, simply by dint of the name. I have always liked “Humanism” because it explicitly places the locus of concern on Humans (this does not mean that Humanists don’t care about non-Humans – but that’s another blog post) rather than on historical figures or religious traditions. And, ultimately, that’s where I think our concern should be focused.

Clearly, once you put “Atheism” in the title of any movement, it is much clearer that a central focus is on atheism – the visibility and treatment of atheists, for example, or the promotion of atheism. The term “Humanism”, and even the term “Secular Humanism”, is not so explicit on this front. For those who see the promotion of atheist identity and fighting anti-atheist discrimination as top priorities it is easy to see the appeal in being more explicit about atheism in the title of a movement. There’s an inherent benefit to identifying as “A+”, too, as Ashley F. Miller has pointed out:

There is a difference between a self-defined humanist doing something good for mankind and a self-defined atheist doing it, simply because of the massive amount of stigma associated with atheism. Proving that atheists care about other people and making the world a better place is important. I think that “atheism+” is a way to bring the philosophy of humanism more strongly to the fight for atheist equality, and vice versa.

So Atheism+ seems to me to be Humanism rebranded to place a stronger emphasis on atheism.

Is there a problem that Atheism+ is just Humanism with a different name?

Not really, no. Ultimately what is important is that we inspire people to act in accordance with their values, and that through our actions to change the world. If Atheism+ is about “walking the walk”, then it really is the walk that is important, not the banner that people walk under. If some people want to walk the same path as I under a different banner, then I’m happy to walk beside them – ultimately we’re heading to the same place.

Rebranding a good idea isn’t always a bad move – sometimes it will help “sell the product” to a new audience. And that seems to be precisely what’s happening. People who have not shown a huge amount of enthusiasm before for Humanist organizations seem to be very excited about a proposed A+ organization. And if it brings more people into what is essentially Humanist activism, that’s a good thing.

Why are all the people excited about Atheism+ not so excited about Humanism?

What’s interesting for a Humanist activist to consider, though, is why many seem to be responding to the “Atheism+” language more readily to the language of “Humanism”. Some, like Miller, will do so for explicitly political reasons, while happily also identifying as a Humanist. Others, though, actively object to the term “Humanist”, and seem excited now partly because they can do “Humanist things” without having to identify as a “Humanist”. And that speaks to some problem with the “Humanist” brand which people like me should think about carefully.

Perhaps one problem is the perception that “Humanism” is too uncritical of or accommodating toward religion. Perhaps another is that there is currently a lot of activist energy in the atheist movement which depends on “atheism” being an explicit organizing principle. A third, maybe, is that the language and marketing of traditional Humanism seems too old-fashioned. For whatever reason, it does seem that the Humanist “packaging” of these ideas simply isn’t as appealing, to some, as the A+ packaging. This is something I’d like to return to in the future.

So, Atheism+ or Humanism?

For me, the Humanist label seems more apt. It expresses my positive values more clearly and focuses the mind on human concerns. To me Atheism is secondary to the “plus”, and Humanism does a better job of articulating the “plus”. The institutions Humanists have already built to do something about that “plus” need the help and support of people who care about those values, and I want to work within them to improve and strengthen that part of the movement.

But if other people want to organize under a different banner toward similar goals I’m happy to march beside them. I just want to ensure we share resources, don’t compete unnecessarily, and learn from what has already been accomplished.

About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • Jonathan Figdor

    James hits the nail on the head with these two explanations of why Humanism hasn’t captured the energy of the Atheism+ crowd:

    (1)”Perhaps one problem is the perception that “Humanism” is too uncritical of or accommodating toward religion.”

    (2) “…the language and marketing of traditional Humanism seems too old-fashioned.”

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  • Ophelia Benson

    James, you say “Humanists are also atheists (and agnostics and skeptics etc.)” -

    It’s that “etc” that’s part of the problem.

    I’m told that some humanists are actively hostile to atheists, and express this at humanist conferences.

    Is there also an issue that “humanism” originated partly as a euphemism for atheism, which inevitably means it’s a way of veiling the atheism? That is, hiding it?

    I think there is, and I think that’s a major reason your title is just wrong. It’s kind of the other way around. Humanism tried to bury the word “atheism” in order to avoid the stigma, and atheists want to combat the stigma directly, instead. So no, Atheism+ is not humanism rebranded; humanism was atheism rebranded and atheists are taking it back.

    • TempleoftheFuture

      “Humanists are also atheists (and agnostics and skeptics etc.)”

      Depends who you think the “etc.” refers to. I think of it as the nontheists, anti-theists, apatheists etc. Doesn’t include wooists!

      “I’m told that some humanists are actively hostile to atheists, and express this at humanist conferences.”

      This is true. But it doesn’t follow that “Humanism” is therefore unfriendly to atheists any more than it follows that because some atheists hate women that “atheism” is unfriendly to women. There are some self-identified “Humanists” who do not act in accordance with Humanist values just as there are plenty of self-identified “Skeptics” who are not very skeptical.

      “Is there also an issue that “humanism” originated partly as a euphemism for atheism, which inevitably means it’s a way of veiling the atheism? That is, hiding it?”

      I don’t think so, no. I think the term evolved for a series of other reasons. But even if it did, I’m being quite clear here that I’m delighted for people to use their own label.

      “Atheism+ is not humanism rebranded; humanism was atheism rebranded and atheists are taking it back.”

      I don’t see it like this. Atheism, in my view, is only a small component of a worldview. It needs to be supplemented with the “plus”. And once you supplement atheism with a concern for social justice, skepticism etc. what you end up with is Humanism.

      But remember, in all of this, I am supportive of this terminology if it results in people getting involved. This is a “yay Atheism +” post!

      • colin hutton

        The comments from both Jonathan and Ophelia ring true to me. Your response to Ophelia, however, suggests you have not taken ownership of the statement in your post “………..that speaks to some problem with the “Humanist” brand which people like me should think about carefully”.

        • TempleoftheFuture

          How so?

          • colin hutton

            Knowing (I assume; from Butterflies and Wheels) that Ophelia Benson would not be hostile to secular humanism, I think you should be concerned that those are her perceptions of the “Humanist” brand (which may be widely held!).

            I may be mistaken, but your reply to her suggests to me that you have treated her points solely as arguments to be refuted. Problem solved. Not!

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  • EdW

    I don’t know if my perspective is typical, but before I got involved with atheist communities, “humanism” always struck me as a strange label — the word “human” is too well-established in my mind as something aliens call us (usually in proximity with the word “puny”) in sci-fi flicks. Think about it, when do people use the word “human” in daily conversation? When there is an existential threat to the “human race”, or when something is “sub-human”, “inhuman”, “only human”. It’s all about our weaknesses. Even “superhuman” just points to how much better we can be than just human beings. It’s extraordinarily rare to hear someone say that they are kind or generous because they’re human. Beyond the initial weirdness of the name (in my mind), I never liked the idea of pointing to my species as the root of my compassion and belief. To say I’m human says nothing of my where my ideology comes from.

  • Mclean

    The convergence of ideas is great, but it is also good to have different labels and movements (although I would much prefer atheism+ be called atheist humanism, as it is a really good indication of what that + means).

    It is really interesting how different starting points all lead to very similar conclusions.

    “Gods don’t exist, therefore…” – atheism+
    “Gods might as well not exist, therefore” – humanism
    “People should base their morality not on religion but on ethics, therefore…” – ethical movements
    “Gods and religions should have no claim of political power, therefore…” – movement laique

    It is not that surprising that these movements largely look the same since their premises largely support each other.

  • Stephanie Zvan

    Excited because the issues I’ve been talking about for the past two years at atheist, skeptic and freethought conferences around the country were finally getting traction in the community at freethought blogs.

    Now, now. Most of us at FtB have been talking about some subset of these things for at least as long. I think bringing our audiences and voices together may have just caused critical mass to be reached. Or groupthink, whichever you prefer.

    Not that I don’t think your talks have been making a difference, of course. :)

  • Lance Armstrong

    Thank you for this post, and for clearing up some of my misconceptions about Humanism.

    Does Humanism have a branding problem? I don’t know. It seems entirely plausible that Humanism will just appeal to a different subset of people. I do see Humanism as less confrontational, but that’s a legitimate approach, too.

    I’m totally comfortable with applying the label “Humanist” to myself, but Atheism+ excites me as a movement. I’ve heard people who support the values contained in that “plus” say that Atheism+ isn’t going to be their thing. Perhaps they will find the Humanist label more appealing. Like you, I’m perfectly pleased to work with someone who shares my values, even if we don’t share labels.

  • Nadai

    The reason I didn’t respond positively to humanism, when I find atheism+ appealing, dates back to the first humanist group I encountered at college. This was in the late 70′s and I was moderately active in a feminist group on campus. When I met members of a campus humanist group, I was rather snottily told that feminism was exclusionary and I should be concerned about men, too. Funnily enough, however, the humanist group was doing no feminist work at all, despite the positive ferment of feminist thought and activity at the time. This lack was not, of course, exclusionary in the least.

    To say this put me off humanist groups is to understate the matter by several orders of magnitude, and I didn’t have enough understanding of the philosophy to look past it and find a better humanist group. I just assumed that’s what humanism was like and wanted no part of it.

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